Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Stick Building

I thought I'd write on this great little video my sister sent me a while back. It's about a guy who is growing a house. Out of trees. Yes, right, all houses are made out of trees. No, GROWing.

Growing Homes
(The translation is a little awkward, but you get the idea.)

At one point he says, "In 3 years, I'll be able to cut the window here." It's unimaginable. We put up stick built* houses in, what? a couple months?, with the majority of the framing and exterior cladding in maybe a month.

I remember hearing a spot on NPR in the wake of one of the Florida hurricanes. It turns out the houses built by Habitat for Humanity had stood while the houses built by professionals had been wiped out. Why? Because the amateurs had pounded so many more nails into those houses - and so many of their nails ended up bent, going in at weird angles that held together better. Unfortunate for some, but also hilarious.

The guy in this video plans out where utilities will need to come through years from now and leaves pipe in place for the trees to grow around! I can imagine different types of people attempting this project, but only a German would approach it in manner so thorough and meticulous that you almost forget what a wildly romantic concept it is.

The narrator anticipates this house will stand 500 years - as long as the trees do. It’s optimistic, but makes some sense - a living tree protects itself from rot and insects, there's no need for siding and no need to paint it - although presumably a roof will be required.

I think it's safe to say most houses that are being built right now in the US are made to last 30-50 years. In the 1800's up to the 1940's or so, we built buildings to last 100 years. This is back when we had higher quality wood**, masonry construction was common practice, and then there's the craftsmanship itself. I bring this up because this man's house will take 30-50 years just to grow. It's a very different perspective.

I've been on jobs where we've salvaged materials from million plus dollar homes that were 10 years old, being demolished for the view - so that the next owner could come in and build their dream home. Homes get built on spec*** by developers or upgraded for sale by homeowners, requiring them to be generally appealing to everyone and specifically appealing to no one. New owners come in and completely gut the place to suit their tastes - the materials entirely unused, the house just a showroom. Are we doing something good for the world salvaging a 10 year old home? It's morally ambiguous.

I've also sold materials to a man who had to fix up his brand new home built on spec by a developer. The workmanship was so poor that the wiring caused a fire and, being severely in debt already, he was now involved in a court case against the developer as well as repairing the home himself to make it livable in the meantime.

On the one hand, we have a failing of material and construction quality - on the other, a lack of respect for the resources and the labor involved in the process. To ask what makes a building survive, or what makes one successful, is a broad question that I don’t intend to answer here. I certainly don't think growing buildings is anything more than a romantic notion, but there's something in the patience and the process that I wanted to point out and pay homage to. A building is a monumental undertaking; it's the most expensive and resource-intensive thing most people will ever be involved with. When I build a home, I want to be able to run my hand across its surfaces and know that it will age with dignity, adapt well, and be treated respectfully throughout the course of its life.


*Stick built is a term describing any house built on site with conventional 2x4/2x6 framing - as oppose to post and beam, masonry, modular pre-fabricated panels or components, tilt-up or cast-in-place concrete or other structural compositions.

**Old growth wood has tighter grain, which literally leaves less air space in the wood and is more resistant to rot, stronger, and less susceptible to warping. Old growth wood doesn’t exist in commercially viable quantities anymore.

***On spec: Built by a developer before a buyer is secured; the opposite of custom built.

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